The missing chapter of The Wisdom of Crowds

If you loved The Wisdom of Crowds, easily the best economic bestseller I’ve read since The Theory of Moral Sentiments and that was published in 1759, you’ll lerve this post by Michael Nielsen. Michael himself is quite an achiever. A graduate of the Uni of Queensland, he’s not only a scientist of some considerable standing (judging by the claims made on his website), he’s a truly fabulous writer. Check out these simple but compelling standards, and see how he meets them in this essay on the chess game of the century.

It had me reaching for the Wisdom of Crowds, which sadly has no index, but I’m pretty sure it’s not discussed at any length in there. What’s fascinating is the role of the ‘information broker’ and how they get to play that role (by acquiring a reputation!). I think it’s something when someone can be so good at one thing (straight cutting edge science at least judging by what is said on his website) and is then so damn good at another quite different skill. It’s not fair.

In the meantime, if you really want to settle into the Michael’s article, you may want to see some commentary as you go through the game – open a new tab here. And the game can be played over the net by opening a new window here.

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15 years ago

Orwell’s rules are better:

“One can often be in doubt about the effect of a word or a phrase, and one needs rules that one can rely on when instinct fails. I think the following rules will cover most cases:

Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
Never use a long word where a short one will do.
If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
Never use the passive where you can use the active.
Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.”
* From Orwell’s essayPolitics and the English Language

15 years ago

I hope it doesn’t sound like I was bagging Nielsen. His first 3 rules are positive. The next 2 are like Orwell’s 2, 3 and 4. I do worry a bit about Nielsen’s 1 and 2 because over-excited writing can be tiresome.

I suspect that the chess article could be improved by shortening some sentences and some paragraphs should be combined. But I’m only being picky. The man is clearly no Dan Brown.

John Greenfield
John Greenfield
15 years ago

Fantastic rules. I wish I’d seen this when I first started my degree. I still haven’t mastered fitting essays into such tiny word limits. This is one area where Australian unis could copy the Americans; compulsory composition/writing courses. Pedro your concerns are valid, but I bet when a History lecturer has to mark one-hundred 3,000 word essays, a little bit of excitement would be much appreciated!

Stephen Bounds
Stephen Bounds
15 years ago


Not to disparage Michael’s work (it’s a great article), but ‘Kasparov against the World’ doesn’t meet the criteria for a Surowiecki “wise crowd”. It’s clear that the choice of move was heavily influenced by the commentary surrounding each move, and (in the end) disproportionately influenced by a few.

Now, if the crowd had been able to beat Kasparov by voting completely blind, then I would be impressed!

(This is, by the way, one of the problems with one of the other major “buzz outcomes” of Surowiecki’s book — futures markets — because people participating in a futures market generally operate within a constrained domain (e.g. a single company) and therefore do get influenced by each other.)

mister zee
15 years ago

Oxford undergrads here rarely write beyond about 1000 words, but they have to submit one every two weeks during term, each with a reading list that would have Australian undergrads making references to waterboarding. My partner (who has to mark such things) says it makes the good ones’ writing very sharp and precise, but the lesser students’ papers contain next to nothing.